Friday, December 19, 2014

Maureen Corrigan is a magician who makes the world disappear

I tend to listen to book critic Maureen Corrigan on NPR's Fresh Air regularly. I don't always agree with her recommendations but overall I respect her opinion and feel strongly that she has her finger on what people are talking about in terms of books. She does tend to value cloying works at times, works which are not always my personal cup of tea. But that's fine. We can't always agree with other book lovers (and, in fact, we shouldn't always agree).

Is there a world outside of America, Maureen Corrigan?
But when  I listened to her Best Books of 2014 the other day, I found myself getting more and more irritated at how narrow and myopic her focus is. Of all the 12 books she put on this list, all but two were American (the stand outs were Sarah Waters, British, and Tara French, Irish) and all without exception were written in English.

I don't know Maureen Corrigan but this attitude that only American writers matter is so out of date and, in fact, dangerous. Why no writers from Mexico? Or France? Or Russia? No Germans or Spaniards or Egyptians. Where is the Italian? Or the Portuguese? God forbid a Chinese or a Japanese writer should be worthy of reading!  No Elena Ferrante? (True, if I remember correctly, she has reviewed Elena Ferrante in the past so maybe Elena Ferrante just didn't make the cut from her point of view.) What kind of criteria is she using? No Patrick Modiano? (Not even venturing to mention non-fiction writers who aren't American or don't write only in English). Again, I know that occasionally (very occasionally) Corrigan does review the odd translated work. But to put this kind of asterisk next to works by almost only Americans really bothers me. Today? In this world? Come on.

We are well past the stage where it's strange to see a huge number of women writers on these kinds of lists. If anyone wrote a list of the best of 2014 that included only men, people would be (rightly) outraged. So why is it OK to exclude every other language on Earth except English? Why is it OK to only value (or overly value) writers who are American? Do Americans really write the best fiction in the world?! Even if the argument can be made that she is recording her segment for Americans, can't Americans deal with foreign fiction or ideas or ways of looking at the world?

Get with the program, NPR: the market in the USA for translated works is growing (albeit at a much slower rate than just about anywhere else on the planet) but taste-makers should lift their blinders and consider works beyond their small little worlds of East Coast Ivy Leaguers.

A 2014 list is by its creation going to exclude many many writers and countries. But to include almost only Americans and to include only works written originally in English is short-sighted and patronizing.

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